Part character study, part thriller, Michael Morrissey

Believers to the Bright Coast
Vincent O’Sullivan
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0 14 028027 8

Like such men of letters as C K Stead and Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan has been fruitfully exploring all the major literary genres – poetry, short stories, novellas, plus (in O’Sullivan’s case) plays – as well as the largest of them all – novels. How does the guy do it, one might ask? And how successfully?

Astonishingly, on balance, very well. The poetry has never been better, the plays are by all accounts proficient to good, and the most recent short stories show no falling-off – if anything an improvement.

Believers to the Bright Coast presents us with an initial diptych of two women who embody sinner and saint: Kate Cooper, ex-mistress of murderer Dr Crippen has fled to the colony of New Zealand where she initiates a brothel-keeping business at which she is both efficient and fair; Sister Marie-Claire, one of the now famous Sister Aubert’s charges, is a hard-working nun. And, like Sister Aubert, Marie-Claire enjoys rolling her sleeves up and tackling some down-to-earth task rather than being part of a contemplative order. As Sister Aubert is quoted as saying, “I have often thought, Sister, a few buckets of water and a bout of decent scrubbing may have worked wonders for Schopenhauer.”

We understand the theatrical necessity for these apparently polarised women to meet and indeed, despite the moral perspective which separates them, that they can respect and even like each other. In their quiet way, both portraits warm us to the women, and the period they inhabit is solidly, richly evoked.

Well and good. The problem I had with the first chapter is the super-abundance of minor characters who assume no subsequent important role and the slow undulant pace, a tempo arguably more suited to Marie-Claire’s sensibility. This first chapter – equivalent to a novella in length – only catches fire when Kate begins to question a prostitute about what rates she charges (“Six bob with your clothes still on. Eight with nothing.”) – information she needs to plan her business enterprise. If you accept this book as (almost) a late Victorian novel, the slowness of pace will not be a concern. (Though no actual date is mentioned, references to the past war and Gene Tunney place it in the 1920s.)

So the narrative switches to the second novella, the nun’s story. Paradoxically, it picks up pace sooner than the first with its skilful analysis of the shifting perspectives of Sister Marie-Claire on virtue, work, contemplation and the startling revelation that Miriam, one of Kate’s most versatile prostitutes has syphilis. (Penicillin is 20 years in the future, and there is no cure.) Despite the obvious differences of their day-to-day concerns, tonally there is no great leap between the women’s modes of cerebration. Possibly this is a deliberate contiguity with its own consequent moral irony, but by near halfway through the novel there is an emotional/dramatic levelling out perilously close to flatness. This is not to say that O’Sullivan’s traditional skills as a noter of historic detail, his thoughtful analysis and shafts of ironic wit don’t make these episodes a worthwhile read.

In the third chapter we are instantly plunged into Spicer’s young man’s earthy demotic vernacular. It’s a surprise, though on reflection of no great moment, that Spicer is the son of Darkie, Kate’s minder should trouble arise. Both Spicer’s and Darkie’s vocabulary is heavily larded with the local idioms of the time: have a gander, knocking shop, how’s your uncle?, sworn off the turps, when push came to shove, didn’t know shit from clay etc – some of which still survive today though we are not so likely to refer to one’s head as one’s swede. This heavy use of the demotic tone – which can be charted directly back to Sargeson (and in its most rigorously updated form to Alan Duff) – is a familiar part of O’Sullivan’s repertoire, one which he has deployed in numerous earlier short stories. While adding authentic flavour, it strikes the ear with no greater force than as a reminder of times past.

The most electrifying scene in the book is when storekeeper Mr Coffey tries to seduce Spicer by plying him with beer and persuading him to try on some women’s shoes. The ambiguity of Spicer’s response – a mixture of innocence, enjoyment and repulsion – adds a much needed sense of narrative tension.

Scenes like this were needed in the first two novella-length chapters. For instance, there is a scene on page 169 where it seems Spicer has made love to Miriam (who has syphilis). This would surely have prompted the dramatic possibility of Spicer, a young man in his prime, catching the dreaded disease. But there is no further mention of this potentiality.

Excitement/tension re-enters in the fourth segment with the sudden introduction of a mysterious character known as “the Chow”. Despite his racist name, the Chow is not Oriental but a pale European. Physically and characterwise, he is an oblique, slightly unfocused personage. It is not even clear why he has come into the company of Marie-Claire, Kate Cooper and Spicer. A Morriesonlike spook, the Chow has a face that is “almost flat”, the nose no more “than a minimal raising of the flesh, the hairless brows above the hooded eyes.”

His motives for kidnapping the three protagonists remain obscure. All that is explained is that he is carrying a gun: he is their captor and terror-monger. Initially, there is a kind of gothic perplexity to this. Plotwise, it enables the three main characters to be drawn into close proximity, and one expects them to relate and intertwine as never before; but O’Sullivan’s storytelling craft does not rise to the dramatic challenge.

There is a frisson as the police roadblock the car with the Chow now dressed as a nun, but it is not built on sufficiently. The climactic passage when the Chow is at last overcome might suggest that it was the nun who shot him, but we are deprived of the scene that depicts this improbable action – she is after all dying of cancer.

O’Sullivan does give us a genuine surprise just before the Chow’s eventual demise. Spicer is once again considering when to make his move to overpower the Chow when he notices that his apparently male captor has – “tits”. Contemporary literature is rife with women who turn out to be men in drag so this reversal has transgender novelty. And there is more. The Chow is a hermaphrodite. Genuine hermaphrodites were probably no more common in the 1920s than they are now. But this “shock” revelation, late in the novel, emerges as little more than a gimmick. A point of view from the Chow’s perspective would have added an intriguing dimension.

Thus the novel – arguably a series of interweaved novellas – begins as a leisurely inner character study of two differing women and ends as a thriller. A dangerous mixture of genres that a Doctorow or an Irving might perhaps have unified into a consistent whole, but which seems here to be filled with insufficiently explored possibilities. Page by page, Believers to the Bright Coast, reads competently, often superbly; but, dramatically and structurally, it is flawed.

Michael Morrissey’s most recent work of fiction, Paradise to Come, was published in 1997. 

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